Catching prospect Hedges looking to be 'full package'
Second-round Draft pick in 2011 advancing quickly with elite skill set
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- For as long as he possibly can, and to the best of his ability, Austin Hedges works attentively with his pitcher to avoid the (mostly) unavoidable -- keeping batters from reaching base.
He does so in any number of ways; it's sequencing pitches, framing them, and pitch selection, as well. Hedges, as all catchers must, has to be aware of what's working for his pitcher at all times and, maybe more importantly, what's not working.
Even here, in the Arizona Fall League, where tinkering with pitches and mechanics is tolerated and encouraged, the bottom line remains the same -- getting outs. Allowing a baserunner here is every bit the deflating proposition as it is anywhere else.
Maybe for the pitcher, but not for Hedges.
"That," Hedges said, smiling, "that is fun time."
Of all that's required of a catcher, and the list is too long to recite, the one element that Hedges enjoys the most is trying to neutralize the running game, either by cutting down runners attempting to steal or with blocking balls in the dirt, protecting each and every inch of the 90 feet of dirt between bases.
"For a catcher, growing up, that's what you always dream of … throwing a guy out, especially if he's the big basestealer on their team," Hedges said. "When a guy gets on first base, the adrenaline kicks in. It doesn't change the way I call a game. It's more of a personal thing."
Hedges' pop time -- his throw to second base -- routinely runs in the 1.8-second range (2.0 seconds is considered to be a good baseline for a Major League catcher). A spiked slider in the dirt? Hedges has an answer for that, too, as he nimbly shifts from one side to the other to smother the ball before it can trickle too far away.
In his two-plus seasons in the Minor Leagues, Hedges has thrown out 32 percent (87 of 269) of the would-be basestealers who have tested him. The Major League average for catchers in 2013 was 27.2 percent. As of Tuesday, Hedges had thrown out 11 of 21 would-be basestealers in the AFL.
"He's getting really close just to, mechanically, catching in the big leagues," said Padres manager Bud Black, who saw Hedges last month in Arizona. "He's checking off some boxes."
During a recent AFL game, Hedges essentially kept the Peoria Javelinas in the game, nabbing three would-be basestealers and blocking seven pitches in the dirt, including an astounding four with runners standing at third base, wanting nothing more than to scoot home for an easy run.
"It was a 2-2 game for most of the game and the pitcher was struggling," said Tyler Barton, a statistics coordinator for Major League Baseball Advanced Media who witnessed Hedges' effort. "But he [Hedges] kept blocking pitches. He probably saved five or six runs that day."
To be sure, there's a lot to like about Hedges, a 21-year-old with an advanced skill set for a premium position and an aptitude that, many in the game agree, exceeds that of his peers who play the same position. He's rated as the third-best catching prospect by MLB.com and, last season, advanced to the Double-A Texas League before his 21st birthday.
Ted Simmons, who caught parts of 21 seasons in the Major Leagues, once said it takes 1,500 Major League at-bats or 500 games in the big leagues to truly know what you have in a catcher. But to those who work in the game, particularly former Major League catchers, they seem to be in complete agreement of what Hedges already is, and what he'll eventually become -- the next big thing.
"I hate to anoint a Minor League player anything prior to his time, but there's no reason why he can't play in the big leagues for a long time," said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who caught 18 seasons in the Major Leagues and worked closely with Hedges while he was a special assistant for the Padres until earlier this month.
"I would expect that 15 years from now, that he would have a good [Major League] career and that he would still probably be playing."
Ausmus, current Padres assistant general manager A.J. Hinch and former big league catcher Brent Mayne -- now an amateur scout for the organization -- saw an awful lot of Hedges while he was playing one hour up Interstate 5 at Junipero Serra Catholic High in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., in the spring of 2011. Looking through different lenses, these former catchers essentially saw the same thing: an exceptional defender with a skill set beyond his years.
"I think that he embraced the position from an early age," said Randy Smith, the Padres' vice president of player development and international scouting. "And he's a very good athlete. No matter what position that you play … athleticism is critical. He's got good reactions. That's why he's so good at blocking. He can read the ball, anticipate it."
The Padres' decision in 2011 to give Hedges a $3 million bonus -- he was considered a strong UCLA commit and fell to the second round -- was the highest bonus in franchise history for a player not drafted in the first round. Today, that bonus looks like money well spent.
Before long, it could be considered a steal.
"To me, one of his greatest strengths is he can do a lot of things in small spaces," said Hinch, who was a catcher for seven seasons in the big leagues. "You've got to move your feet in small spaces. Those are things learned over time, but he has this natural timing to how he catches. For me, it's how he's able to stay calm and under control but also work quickly in small spaces."
Simmons, a former Padres bench coach who is now a senior advisor to Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, recently returned from scouting players in the AFL. While he saw only a handful of games in which Hedges played in, Simmons saw enough to recognize a rare and special talent.
"He has an arm that controls the running game," Simmons said. "I think he threw out six [would-be basestealers] in a row when I saw him … six. That was the most impressive thing I saw. He's a true catch-and-throw guy. He was very impressive."
These are the physical elements of Hedges' game that are considered advanced, especially for his age. But there's a whole other aspect of the job that Hedges has already made inroads with -- the mental side of catching, Ausmus said.
"It's his aptitude for the game … he sees things in the game at 20 and 21 that most people don't see until they're 25 or 26," Ausmus said. "It's happened because he's, for lack of a better term, a baseball rat. He's trying to work his pitchers through seven, eight, nine innings. He's got an understanding of what's important in the big picture."
Hinch has seen this for himself the last two seasons, during Hedges' stop in the Midwest League in 2012 and then last season when started with Class A Lake Elsinore and advanced to Double-A San Antonio.
"He set such high standards for himself … that elite pop time down to second base don't satisfy him," Hinch said.
What does begin to satisfy Hedges is earning the trust of his pitchers. This isn't about throwing down two fingers and simply hoping for the best. It's about something deeper, something much more visceral.
"When a guy shakes me off, I want to be able to communicate to him and get him to trust me," Hedges said. "… I think the best advice I've gotten so far is that the wrong pitch with conviction is better than the right pitch without conviction. I always try to think of that. If the pitcher knows his slider is good, then you throw it the best you can. That's always better than, say, a mediocre fastball.
"It's getting the full trust out of your pitcher. That helps to develop our relationship."
Hedges' calling card, obviously, is his defense, but he's far from a slouch offensively. He has a .268/.337/.421 slash line in his first 748 plate appearances with 15 home runs and 98 RBIs. He's hitting .294 in 51 at-bats this fall. He hit .224 in 20 games after his promotion to San Antonio and will likely begin the 2014 season there again.
"This guy has a chance to impact both sides of the ball," Smith said. "… He's still learning, but he gets it."
Hedges is quick to acknowledge that his hitting gets overlooked, and he's fine with that. But that doesn't mean he works any less at it or neglects it. In fact, it's just the opposite.
"Catching is always going to be the priority," Hedges said. "There are so few true offensive catchers in the league. There is a good reason for that, too. It's a difficult position to play. But I want my offense to be as good as my defense. I work as hard at my offense as I do my defense. As much as I know I need to prioritize defense over my offense, I want it to be as good as it can possibly be.
"I want to be the full package."